VCU Student Stories – Marko Alvarenga

[View Image]Health, Physical Education and Exercise Science major Marko Alvarenga.

What started as a trip to visit his recovering grandfather turned into a 17-day struggle to return home for VCU student Marko Alvarenga. 

After his Spring Break plans were canceled due to COVID-19, Marko decided to change his plans to instead travel to Honduras to visit his grandfather who recently had surgery as a result of a heart attack in February 2020. Marko originally planned to spend a few days visiting family in Honduras and return home in time for classes to resume. “As I landed I got a text from my parents…two cases came up in a city near me and one in the capitol. I wasn’t too worried because I was leaving in four days.”

Little did he know the situation would evolve so rapidly.

By the weekend Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez had issued a stay at home order and announced the closure of all airports, ports and borders. Residents had until 4:00 p.m. the next day to buy several weeks’ worth of groceries. This created several challenges for local residents. “The people are extremely poor, jobs are very rare and clean water isn’t as available,” Marko said. “Because I knew the chaos that was about to happen I exchanged all the money I brought with me and split it between my family on both sides.”An empty street in Honduras [View Image]An empty street in Honduras during the lockdown.

After a few days, a stricter lockdown order was issued closing most businesses and restricting travel out of the city to essential workers. During weeks of heat and limited access to food, Marko turned his attention to his studies. VCU had, at this point, adjusted to remote learning for the foreseeable future, so Marko’s classes were now being held online. Marko is a Health, Physical Education and Exercise Science major with a minor in Psychology. VCU is the only college he applied to because of the wonderful things he had heard from friends who attended and about the quality of the physical therapy program.

“My concerns were ‘how long will it be until I can get my family restocked on food’ and ‘how am I going to be able to do my homework…when the WiFi is extremely weak’?” After a few days of struggling to connect, Marko contacted his professors and advisor to make them aware of the difficult situation. That’s when Kinesiology & Health Sciences advisor Emma Goodridge sprang into action.

“[She] helped me way beyond what I expected,” Marko said. Marko reached out just to make sure she was aware, not expecting Ms. Goodridge would connect with her supervisors and do everything in her power to help him return. Ms. Goodridge later put him in contact with VCU Travel & Reimbursement Analyst Amy Hale who helped him find flights that were allowing US citizens to return home.

A week and a half after travel restrictions were implemented, a flight was found during the three-day period in which the Honduran government would allow US citizens to travel out of the country. Unfortunately, the cost of the ticket was outside of Marko’s budget. This was Marko’s only chance, as President Juan Orlando Hernandez didn’t plan to reopen airports until mid-April at the earliest and the US Embassy in Honduras wasn’t releasing much information for US citizens. “This is where Amy did everything she could to get approvals to get me home and make sure I was safe.” Upon hearing Marko had reached out to the US Embassy in Honduras, Ms. Hale began looking into their humanitarian flights in addition to flights through the university’s travel management company. Ms. Hale was trying to book seats on flights that were selling out faster than a seat could be secured, but, after double-checking a next-day flight out of San Pedro Sula, she finally managed to buy a ticket.

Since the spread of COVID-19 caused the implementation of global travel restrictions, employees across VCU Procurement Services have been working tirelessly to help VCU students, employees and guests return home. Once classes turned remote for the rest of the semester, Student Affairs, Travel Services and Procurement Services worked together to put processes in place to aid VCU students in getting back to the United States.

Marko’s ticket was purchased with funds from the Division of Student Affairs VCU Student Emergency Fund, managed by the Dean of Students Office. Designed to provide one-time financial assistance with unexpected emergency expenses, the goal of the VCU Student Emergency Fund is to prevent one emergency or unexpected expense from derailing a student’s progress toward a degree.

This fund made it possible for Marko to return and continue his studies. “After 17 days I was going back home.”

Marko updated Ms. Hale when he was checked in for his flight and once he arrived in Houston, Texas to let the university know he had made it back to the United States. The gratitude he expressed to Ms. Hale for what the university had done for him was heartwarming, and everyone involved in the process of getting him home mark it as a rewarding experience that shows the incredible things that can be accomplished when we work together as #OneVCU.

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